I live in Israel, and we do OPOL. Our goal is for my son to speak English at a mother-tongue level. My husband speaks to our son in Hebrew and I speak English. My son is in a Hebrew daycare, so the English exposure he gets is only 1 hour in the mornings, 2 hours in the evenings, and on weekends. Since his exposure to English is limited, we decided it's best if he never hears me speak Hebrew, including in public.
Our problem is, very unfortunately, with my husband's family. His parents don't know English. But prioritizing our language goal, we decided I will speak English to them in our son's presence, and my husband will translate. His parents don't like this, saying it's rude to come to someone else's home and speak to them in a language they don't understand. They say it's enough that I speak to him in English, I don't need to speak to everyone else in English.
We've tried explaining that children speak a minority language based on need, and if our son sees that mommy speaks Hebrew just fine, he won't have a need to speak English. Our efforts and explanations haven't seemed to change their minds. Now we're left with the choice of compromising our language goal and maintaining family peace, or sticking with our goal, and accepting the consequences with the family. We have basically decided that an unreasonable family is not a reason to compromise our goal, and to stick with our plan. But I sometimes wonder if we're being unnecessarily strict or unreasonable. We would greatly appreciate your thoughts.
I personally am a bit turned off by such policy. I think it is rude to purposefully not speak the language to your in laws that they know. But that's my own personal opinion because I was successful at teaching minority language while not shying away from speaking majority language in front of my child. But then again my in laws think it's rude that me and my child have private discussions in front of them in a language they can't understand. So I'm offending my in-laws just as much as you are.
I don't think it's really feasible to never use Hebrew in front of your child either. Do you never go to the store together? Do you not speak to his teachers? The child will eventually catch on that you are fluent in Hebrew. The question then becomes what sort of example is that setting for your child? Will he then think that you should never use Hebrew in public if you speak English? My own personal policy has been to model the behavior I want my children to exhibit as good bilingual citizens. So they see me speaking English to English speakers, and Russian to Russian speakers and other bilinguals.
Where in Israel do you live? I've found that there are a lot of American expats living there and you can generally find a decently supportive English environment. My cousin has her kids in English immersion daycare somewhere near Jerusalem. My school in Tel Aviv had English for English speaker classes because they had so many children who were fluent.
I must say I had quite a strong reaction to this post. Please take my opinion as respectfully intended. It is strongly influenced by my work as an interpreter.
I am also in a situation in which my child gets very little exposure to the minority language right now. I address my in-laws in English but do not shy away from speaking to my son always in Spanish. But I then accommodate the monolingual family members by translating for them myself. I guess I don't think it's fair to make conversations difficult for them just because they don't speak the other language. Also, unless you live with them, you won't really be giving your child enough extra contact time in the minority language just by addressing them in that language. You would have better luck with some English speaking friends or babysitters. For the 2 hours you spend struggling with your in-laws, could your son have been enjoying some English exposure with another native speaker? Also, if your son starts to feel this tension in the family will he start to associate that with your language?
The other aspect of bilingual families that I am big on is the idea of sustainability. If your in laws don't speak the language you address them in, how sustainable is that? It is surprisingly taxing on a relationship to have to use this kind of interpreting, especially when not necessary. I use a lot of interpreter services in my job as a nurse and I must say that if I speak the patient's language, I would never go through a long, arduous interpretation in which the ability to connect with my patients is compromised. I appreciate your passion, but in addition to language skills, don't you also want to teach your child respect for his family and the situation of others? This is the beginning of empathy.
Sarah, this is a tricky situation, and I empathize with both sides of the divide.
Generally speaking, I do think the odds of successfully fostering active ability in the minority language are stronger when the minority language parent can consciously limit his or her use of the majority language around the child, particularly during the early formative years. That said, every parent must also consider to what extent this objective can realistically be pursued. I don't know the details of your situation--how much time you actually spend with your in-laws--but it may be that using Hebrew with them won't ultimately have the negative impact you fear. After all, my sense is that English is widely learned, and learned well, in Israel, which means that, over the longer term, the greater environment will support your larger aim. If that's the case, then you risk damaging your relationship with them over an unnecessary concern.
I can tell you that I've long faced the same circumstances: my in-laws don't speak the minority language, either, which means I have to communicate with them in the majority language. And, in my case, I felt strongly that speaking the majority language too freely would undermine my efforts to "condition" my kids to use the minority language with me. Now it's true, we don't really see them so often, anyway (maybe three times a year), but I simply chose to be more quiet when we visited their house. I mean, I would interact with my kids, as always, in the minority language, but I wasn't as talkative with my in-laws. In other words, I've handled this more indirectly, without discussing it openly with them.
And, at this point, because my children's ability in the minority language is now well grounded, which makes the majority language less of a "threat," I've come to feel more comfortable using the majority language in their presence.
So, again, I know this is tricky, and you don't want to compromise your bilingual goal, but looking at the situation from a longer-term angle may help ease your concern and enable you to strike the right balance to effectively address both aspects of the issue.
All the best to you, Sarah!
Adam Beck is the founder of Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, and the author of the popular book Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability amzn.to/22XKuCt and the humorous novel How I Lost My Ear amzn.to/2EsjVRS, both available worldwide. Please support The Bilingual Zoo through Adam's Patreon page www.patreon.com/bilingualmonkeys.
It is not an easy situation but I just want to give you my humble opinion.
I think we, as parents trying to raise bilingual kids, can get very passionate about it and sometimes take it to the extremes, and I can sympathize with it especially when the exposure to the ml is limited. But on the other hand, I would also sympathize with my family feeling offended by others not speaking the only language they can communicate with. In this case is about how much they value and respect their relationship with the family, and as we know our kids are learning from observing these scenarios too; not only from what they can hear.
I agree with everyone who posted here, and wanted to add my own bit. We try to teach our kids 2 mls, with English being ML. My sons are almost 8 and almost 6, and they have very good proficiency in both mls. They only address me in Russian, and they only address my husband in Serbian. Now, they know that both my husband and me speak fluent English, as they regularly see us interacting with people in stores, their teachers, our friends, etc. They also know that I speak Serbian (as that is the language I use with my husband), and that my husband speaks Russian (that is the language he uses when my parents come over). That knowledge hasn't affected their knowledge of the mls.
My kids sometimes ask me why Daddy speaks Russian when my parents are over. Our answer - because Grandpa and Grandma don't speak Serbian, it's polite. Although we still address the kids exclusively in our own languages. We might translate some of our conversations, but not all of it.
What about when your friends come over? Do you also insist on speaking only English if your son is within an earshot? What if he isn't? I agree with Tatyana, he will eventually figure out that you speak Hebrew anyway (he'll be up when you think he's asleep, etc.) I believe your strict policy is unnecessary.
This bilingual road is not always easy! Sympathy! But being open to find a way through whatever you're experiencing is the way forward! I have a feeling everyone here has tried different ways and methods and fine-tuned what works for them...it's just a case of figuring that out!
My feelings on this are that if any of us had to choose between a perfectly bilingual child, or a content child, I have a feeling most would choose the latter. Although being bilingual is an amazing gift, my instinct is that your relationship and your son's relationship with his grandparents is more important and must be protected. It can't be good for anyone if there is tension when you meet, and if your son realizes this is due to language, he may feel a negative association with it which may spell trouble later...
One thing I wonder about what happens when you are with others, especially other children. I used to speak only the minority language to my daughter when we were in public, up to about 12-18 months, and majority to anyone we were with, but then I changed this and spoke both majority and minority (i.e. said everything twice!) around my daughter. This was because she was becoming more social and it was necessary for me to teach her how to behave, for e.g. to 'take turns'. I realised it was extremely important for whatever child we were with, that they too could understand what I was saying to my daughter, as they also needed to hear that it was necessary to 'take turns' and they were going to be my daughter's friends which was major! I know this may be frowned upon as you're not supposed to switch so much but she is now 4 and she is doing great! I think you just need to see a bigger picture and try and get the bilingualism to fit in...if you make it routine that you speak directly to him in English but speak some Hebrew when in company of others I have a feeling he will still associate you with English and continue on that route...but this is all just my thoughts!
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